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Back Issues

Back Issues

Guided tours through the archive of America’s oldest weekly. Got a question? rkreitner@thenation.com.

Solar Power Is on the Rise? We Suggested Harnessing the Sun’s Heat Back in 1866

Printing press driven by solar energy in 1882 (PD-US)

“The Great Energy Transition to Solar and Wind Is Underway,” declared a headline yesterday on the environmental-news website EcoWatch. Thanks in no small part to Obama-era government subsidies, renewable energy appears poised for a much-belated breakthrough over the next few years.

Yet it cannot be understated how much time has been lost, as we can see from a little feature that appeared in The Nation’s issue of May 29, 1966.

The item ran in the magazine’s column on scientific issues under the headline “UTILIZATION OF THE SUN’S HEAT.”

Referring to a Nation piece some weeks earlier about “the ultimate exhaustion of the coal fields…and the possibility of substituting other sources of power for the fossil fuel which is now so important an element in the existing order of human society,” the item summarized the 1830s experiments of the English scientist and inventor John Herschel. On an expedition near the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa—where, the Nation column noted, “the sun pours down its rays without hindrance”—Herschel trapped the sun’s heat in a mahogany box he covered with glass and painted black on the inside. He then put uncooked food in the box and waited to see what would happen.

The Nation quoted Herschel’s description of what happened once the box reached over 240 degrees Fahrenheit after two weeks:

As these temperatures far surpass that of boiling water, some amusing experiments were made by exposing eggs, fruit, meat, etc.…all of which, after a moderate length of exposure, were found perfectly cooked—the eggs being rendered hard and powdery to the centre; and on one occasion a very respectable stew of meat and vegetables was prepared, and eaten with no small relish by the entertained bystanders.

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Expanding on Herschel’s own reports, The Nation’s science columnist—whose name I haven’t yet been able to deduce—suggested that “the sun’s heat could be converted into mechanical force through the intervention of thermo-electricity.” The writer specifically said that “a thermo-electric battery” might be placed atop the box, “and the power thus generated would be susceptible of direct application.”

Almost a century and a half later, it seems we have finally been convinced to give the idea a try.

* * *

Curious about how we covered something? E-mail me at rkreitner [at] thenation [dot] com. Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

 

Read Next: A multimedia timeline on the fight for a sustainable future

‘The Nation’ and WILPF: Entwined Histories, Entwined Destinies

Delegates to the April 1915 Women's International Congress for Peace and Freedom aboard the MS Noordam. (Bain News Service, PD-US)

In addition to being the 150th anniversary of The Nation, 2015 is the 100th anniversary of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, an advocacy organization co-founded by Emily Greene Balch, later a Nation staff editor and a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. At an event held at the New York Public Library on March 11, Nation editor and publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel delivered the following tribute to Balch and to our sister organization:

The Nation and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom have entwined histories, and, I think it’s no stretch to say, entwined destinies. Late in 1918, just after the Armistice ended World War I, just as The Nation, under its new pacifist editor Oswald Garrison Villard, was turning sharply to the left, a 51-year-old woman named Emily Greene Balch joined the staff of the magazine.

Balch had first contributed to The Nation in 1891, when, just 24 years old, recently graduated from Bryn Mawr, she sent a long and meticulously-detailed dispatch from Europe, regarding a new law in France aimed at eliminating regressive property taxes. It was what we would today call wonky.

Returning from Europe, Balch joined the faculty of Wellesley College, as a professor of sociology and economics. When hostilities erupted in Europe in 1914, Balch threw herself into the effort to secure peace and to keep America out of the war. In January 1915 she joined with Jane Addams, Carrie Chapman Catt and other activists to found the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

Wellesley eventually fired Balch for her pacifist activities, and she found a refuge at The Nation. She helped edit the new International Relations Section—basically an aggregation of articles and documents from overseas—with future Nation editor and publisher Freda Kirchwey and wrote unsigned editorial blurbs for the magazine. Kirchwey’s biographer Sara Alpern has written that Balch was known in the office for “absently nibbling raisins as she read clippings” and for her voracious knowledge of international relations; Kirchwey admired Balch’s intelligence and courage, calling her “the least self-conscious woman” she had ever met. Dissenting from Villard’s fervent stance, on anti-imperialist grounds, against the League of Nations, Balch left the magazine in 1919 and joined the Women’s International League full-time.

When Balch won the Nobel in 1946, John Herman Randall Jr., a philosophy professor at Columbia, wrote in The Nation that the selection of its former editor showed that by avoiding its ordinary selection of one statesman or another, the Nobel Committee had “recognized how much private citizens can contribute to the conditions for international peace.” He wrote of Balch:

With her dry and kindly sense of humor, her modesty, her integrity of mind, and above all with that priceless quality of spiritual intensity and vision, she has won the respect of sincere workers for peace everywhere. And in her they have all received recognition.

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The League’s work continues, as does The Nation’s. Back in February of 1915, one month after the League was founded, as war raged in Europe, as The Nation prepared its 50th anniversary issue, the photographer and peace activist Eve Watson Schutze wrote a letter to the editor of The Nation in which she said: “There is a patriotism greater than the claim of any one nation, which demands that wars, as a means of settling international difficulties or disputes, must be done away with…Not one of us has the right to remain a passive spectator to this carnage.” That message, sadly, and despite many successes, is as relevant today as it was a century ago. And it will continue to be heard so long as there is a Nation and a League—right up until the day there is, finally, at long last, a strong and meaningful League of democratic and peaceful Nations.

Read Next: The Nation’s 150th anniversary special issue

A Note From a Reader (and a ‘Nation’ Son)

Edgar Kemler

It seems to be true of both the Mafia and the Hotel California that you can never really leave. Add to this estimable list the family that has developed over the decades around The Nation magazine.

We were recently sent the following letter from longtime reader James E. Kemler of Boston, Massachusetts. His father, Edgar Kemler, was the magazine’s Washington correspondent in the dark days of the mid-1950s. Links to Kemler père’s articles in The Nation appear below references to them. —Richard Kreitner

My childhood memories of wrinkled pages in a scrapbook with the bold The Nation headline are hazy and jumbled. Without the author to explain their significance I never really read them at the time, rather just skimming the passages and glancing at the cartoon drawings. Edgar Kemler, my father, who had died when I was 3 years old, had written for The Nation from 1954–56, covering Washington, DC, for the magazine before I was born. My mom had explained that this was a liberal publication, in sync with our family values. Beyond that, I didn’t understand much of the magazine’s context while growing up outside of DC.

Fast forward five decades and I am again looking at these same articles, but now on pristine laser-printed pages downloaded from the The Nation’s archives. I was bringing them with me on The Nations educational program in Cuba in February 2015. The happy coincidence of signing up for this trip was an opportunity to meet the publication’s present-day management and renowned journalists. What struck me as I carefully read a number of my father’s articles were the freshness of the topics and relevance to current political issues. His writing style conveyed the subjects with intelligence, clarity and common sense—which continue to be so present in the magazine today. In addition to numerous pieces related to McCarthy, my father’s topics included civil rights, natural gas, a debate on a controversial hydroelectric dam site, FCC license politics related to free speech, and a story about the military’s plans for biological warfare.

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Reliving these distant snapshots of then-relevant Washington news feeds gave me a fresh insight into my father’s perspective and communication style. That I was surrounded by his current colleagues collectively experiencing the historic events of today in Cuba—which itself has elements frozen in time from my father’s era—was a true gift. I am thankful to The Nation for providing this double-edged opportunity—to reach back to my father’s professional contributions and to share in a memorable and historic change in US-Cuba relations. This was a very unique and rewarding family reunion courtesy of The Nation.

Did one of your friends or relatives write for The Nation back in the day? Write to us at rkreitner [at] thenation [dot] com.

 

Read Next: Richard Kreitner on Bowe Bergdahl and the war that should never have happened.

April 6, 1896: The First Modern Olympics Open in Athens

American Olympians, 1896

American track and field athletes at the Greek Olympics, 1896. From L-R: Francis Lane, Herbert Jamison, Robert Garrett and Albert Tyler. (Wikimedia Commons).

The idea for the modern revival of the Olympic Games is attributed to Baron Pierre Coubertin, who founded the International Olympic Committee in 1894. The natural choice for the location of the first Games was Athens. In the October 3, 1895, issue of The Nation, Demetrios Kalopothakes (a Greek journalist who had graduated from Harvard in 1888) wrote an article about the plans. In an 1889 letter, Helen Keller asks a Greek friend to send Kalopothakes her love.

At a time when the frivolous policy of the best of Greek statesmen has landed the Greek kingdom in the slough of bankruptcy, and done the whole Greek race incalculable damage in the respect of the outside world, the friendly readiness with which Americans have espoused the cause of this Athenian gathering of 1896 is doubly grateful to the Greeks, long oppressed with a sense of their political isolation. For, in spite of the international origin of the project, next year’s Olympic meeting is looked upon in Athens first and foremost as a Greek affair—an act of Greek hospitality to the civilized world, and hence an occasion with whose success Greek honor is closely bound up. The games are to be international, but in a distinctively Hellenic setting—on the storied plain of Attica, surrounded by immortal monuments of fame and unmatched vistas of mountain and sea, and by living representatives from every Hellenic city and colony throughout the world. Surely such a combination need not blush before the more stately and lavish magnificence of greater cities and wealthier nations; the immortal ruins of the Parthenon and the glorious Attic sky cannot be found or matched elsewhere.

April 6, 1896

To mark The Nation’s 150th anniversary, every morning this year The Almanac will highlight something that happened that day in history and how The Nation covered it. Get The Almanac every day (or every week) by signing up to the e-mail newsletter.

We Need a Million More Bowe Bergdahls, Says a Former US Army Ranger

Bowe Bergdahl

Bowe Bergdahl, right, stands with a Taliban fighter in eastern Afghanistan. The Taliban released a video showing the handover of Bergdahl to US forces in exchange for five Taliban detainees from Guantanamo. (AP Photo/Voice Of Jihad Website via AP video)

The news that the most powerful organization in the known universe, the United States military, intends to focus its coercive mechanisms on a frightened, sensitive, traumatized young man, Bowe Bergdahl, has elicited howls of delight from that section of our public arena leased at below-market prices by the guild of belligerent cowards.

Back Issues is a blog about The Nation’s archives, but one would need a magazine much older than 150 years to find archival evidence of a time when such views had the merest claim to morality, not to mention, as the guild so often and so tediously does, piety.

“I am shocked at the concerted effort led by pro-war elements to pillory this guy, rather than offer serious compassion,” Robert Musil, who wrote an article on Vietnam deserters for The Nation in 1973, told me last year. “Where is all that rhetoric about ‘we support our troops’? He has suffered a lot, as have others. Where is the understanding, the compassion, the humanity? I frankly think that’s the proper response to an American kid stranded in the middle of Afghanistan who feels he has no choice but to go away from his unit.”

After I wrote that post, I was contacted by Rory Fanning, a former US Army Ranger in Afghanistan who served in the same unit as Pat Tillman. Fanning kindly sent me a copy of his book, Worth Fighting For, published last November by Haymarket. It is a profoundly moving memoir about his trek across the United States to raise money for the Pat Tillman Foundation, but more importantly it is a thoughtful, historically literate and often hilarious account of Fanning’s effort to forge a new relationship with a country he worried he had betrayed and had been betrayed by: disturbed by what he saw in Afghanistan, Fanning briefly went AWOL. He likely would have suffered the same fate that Bergdahl faces had not imperial stupidity, incompetence and lying saved him at the last moment. Preoccupied by the fallout from Tillman’s death and the attempted cover-up to prevent disclosure that it was caused by friendly fire, military authorities allowed Fanning to leave their custody without charges.

Fanning returned home and a few years later embarked on his transcontinental walk, seeking (and ultimately finding) a more profound connection to the American people, past and land than he had thought possible when he was growing up.

(I cannot recommend the book highly enough.)

My first reaction upon hearing the news that Bergdahl would be charged with desertion was to unfurl a string of expletives. My second was to get Fanning on the phone.

“Clearly,” he began, “the main reason they’re going after him is because they don’t want to be responsible for the hundreds of thousands of dollars in back pay that they owe him. I find that ironic, as they’ve been giving millions to warlords, throwing away trillions since 2001.”

Indeed, The New York Times’s otherwise somewhat mysterious suggestion that “there appears to be little desire to see him serve time” makes a lot more sense if you reason, as Fanning does, that they are only charging him to avoid having to cough up the back pay.

“The evidence against him that he’s responsible for the deaths of six soldiers is tenuous at best,” Fanning continued. “But the bigger point is the fact that the entity to blame for these deaths is the US military, for sending these soldiers into a war that should never have happened. The Taliban surrendered months after the initial invasion. But our politicians wanted blood.”

Fanning feels for Bergdahl. “Anyone who has been in Afghanistan could clearly see that the US had nothing to do in that country,” he told me. “We were little more than pawns in village disputes most of the time.”

“To be honest with you,” Fanning said, “we need a million more Bowe Bergdahls. Anybody who has any degree of common sense or moral fortitude would say, ‘This is ridiculous. I’m not gonna fight this war.’”

Fanning told me, as Musil had last year, that it is not at all easy or in some cases possible to declare yourself a conscientious objector once you are in war.

“I could totally relate to this guy,” he said. “I consider him a hero. To kill somebody for a cause you don’t believe in is potentially worse than being killed yourself, because those scars last forever. Just walking off the battlefield as Bergdahl did seems like an easier route than seeking conscientious-objector status.”

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Why the wingnut feeding frenzy?

“It’s a lot of fear-mongering to prop up this state of perpetual war,” Fanning concluded. “Recruitment is down. People are realizing we’re not fighting for freedom or democracy, but for empire. They have to make an example out of someone like Bowe Bergdahl.”

Read Next: Richard Kreitner on Israel and Egypt’s peace treaty, signed exactly 36 years ago

Or to Put It Another Way: 100 Years Ago, We Were Already 50 Years Old

Henry James

Henry James, who wrote an article for the first issue of The Nation. (National Portrait Gallery: NPG 1767)

The fiftieth anniversary of The Nation came at a time of transition for the magazine. The old order had fallen away and a new one had not yet taken its place. A flashy rival with a name almost as ridiculously ambitious as its own had just months earlier appeared on the scene: The New Republic threatened to make the scholarly Nation look even more out of touch, irrelevant and conservative than it already was. The Nation’s founding editors, E.L. Godkin and Wendell Phillips Garrison, had died a decade earlier, and Oswald Garrison Villard—son of the railroad magnate who bought The Nation in 1881, and himself a prominent journalist and co-founder of the NAACP—had not yet taken over the editorship of the weekly and steered it sharply to port, as he would in 1918.

After providing the usual round-up of the week’s news, mostly involving the debate over American neutrality in the World Wa, the issue got down to business.

An editorial on “The ‘Nation’s’ Jubilee,” began:

Those to-day responsible for the conduct of the Nation look back to its fifty years of life with a kind of proud humility. The secure past is not theirs, yet they, as inheritors of a high tradition, must not discredit it. As they think of the men who conceived the Nation and nourished its early years—both editors and contributors during the time when its fame was solidly built up—the sensation is like that of one walking through a gallery of the portraits of his famous ancestors—his, if he lives worthy of the name they bequeathed to him; not his, if he fastens disgrace where they stamped only honor.

Only honor—as we have regularly covered on this blog and in the magazine, there is much besides honor evident when one peruses the bound volumes of The Nation from the first fifty years. Virulently anti-labor; racist to the point of regretting the Fifteenth Amendment; conservative by disposition and largely reactionary in ideology; profoundly anti-imperialist, yes, but often on the grounds that it was beneath Americans to consort abroad with some of your lesser races, whose potential for advancement and civilization was negligible and not worth the bother anyway—The Nation after roughly 1870, when it ditched the cause of Reconstruction, was stamped with plenty of dishonorable associations. On top of all that, H.L. Mencken once wrote that The Nation of the early 20th century was the most boring publication that had ever been published anywhere in the world.

In 1915, the magazine was still in the hands of deeply conservative gentlemen—one editor was a renowned Sanskrit scholar—and labored only to make themselves worthy of the legacy. The 50th anniversary issue is almost obsequiously dedicated to this single purpose.

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“This number of the Nation is largely given up to memory,” the editors wrote. “but hope is interfused. Coming days are to be fronted bravely. An institution like the Nation is self-renewing.”

Amid the tributes of aging publishers, English viscounts and distinguished professors, one essay in the issue stands out: a brief memoir by Henry James, who at only 22 years old had written an article for the first issue, and had contributed hundreds of reviews and travel essays in the ensuing decades. Near the beginning of his 1915 essay James pinpoints, as closely as his roundabout late style allowed, the pleasures offered by perusing The Nation’s archives from its earliest years:

They were, they flourished, they temporarily triumphed, that scene, that time, those conditions; they are not a dream that we drug ourselves to enjoy, but a chapter, and the most copious, of experience, experience attested by documents that would fill the vastest of treasure-houses. These things compose the record of the general life of civilization for almost the whole period during which men of my generation were to know it.

He then described Godkin’s visit to the James home on Boston’s Ashburton Place, behind the Massachusetts State House, in the spring of 1865, when Godkin asked the young, almost entirely unpublished James (who, here, conspicuously doesn’t mention that Godkin was probably even more interested in visiting Henry James Sr.) to contribute to the new weekly:

The verb to contribute took on at once to my ears a weird beauty of its own, and I applied it during that early time with my best frequency and zeal…I was very young and very willing, but only as literary and as critical as I knew how to be—by which I mean, of course, as I had been able to learn of myself…That winter of Ashburton Place, the winter following the early summer-birth of the confident sheet, fairly reeks for me, as I carry myself back to it, with the romantic bustle of getting my reviews of books off.

Next we’ll peruse the sixtieth anniversary issue, published in 1925, with contributions by Zona Gale, Sinclair Lewis and, among others, H.L. Mencken, whose comment about The Nation’s early-century dullness was followed by the claim that when Villard took over the publication in 1918, he “threw out the trash and started printing the truth.”

* * *

Curious about how we covered something? E-mail me at rkreitner at thenation dot com. Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

 

Read Next: Richard Kreitner takes us back in time to The Nation’s anniversary editions as the 150th anniversary issue rolls off the presses.

Nobody Thought It Likely to Succeed: Reading Our 20th Anniversary Issue as the 150th Goes to Press

Edwin Lawrence Godkin

Edwin Lawrence Godkin, founding editor of The Nation (The Evening Post)

An anniversary issue is an odd beast, designed both to pay tribute to the past and to embody a magazine’s conception of its own identity in the present. Complicating the task, the primary resource that magazines can ordinarily draw on to bridge the divide between past and present—institutional memory—often isn’t much available when needed the most. When each anniversary rolls around, the crew on hand at the time has to more or less reinvent the wheel.

The pejorative connotation of that phrase drops away, however, when one peruses the anniversary issues that successive staffs of The Nation have produced in the last 150 years. Together they comprise a record of renewal and reinvention that is nothing less than the identity of the magazine itself, not at any one arbitrary moment but aggregated through time, presenting a compendium of vistas on the American scene.

Over the next two weeks, as The Nation’s almost comically massive and dense 150th anniversary issue rolls off the presses, Back Issues will take a peek into each anniversary issue The Nation has published. As always, subscribers can access the magazine’s full archives at www.thenation.com/archive.

***

Today, we cheat a little: the issue of June 25, 1885, was not entirely devoted to the twentieth anniversary of the magazine—more urgent, apparently, to report Henry Ward Beecher’s moderation of his previously strong position on “the tobacco question”—but the first editorial was devoted to an examination of what The Nation had gotten right and what it had gotten… really right since its founding twenty years earlier.

In “Twenty Years Later” (June 25, 1885), founding editor E.L. Godkin had to defend a difficult legacy: created by its abolitionists backers with the explicit mission of continuing the abolitionist cause in the age of emancipation and reconstruction, The Nation soon abandoned the effort and became the house organ of the Eastern political establishment, turning against any form of federal assistance to blacks in the South and against any political activity among the working classes more generally.

How would Godkin explain it?

The editorial begins:

With the present number the Nation completes the twentieth year of its existence. It was started in July, 1865, when the last shots of the civil war were still ringing in men’s ears, when the work of reconstruction at the South was only just beginning, and when the whole administration of the Government was still marked by the disorders and anomalies of military necessity.

With that last phrase, Godkin’s strategy comes into focus: the Radical Republican rah-rah of the early days after the Civil War was not the result of morality or even politics, but simply of what was required at the end of a war. That’s a far cry from the prediction in The Nation’s first issue that the end of the Civil War marked the beginning of the end of “the conflict of ages, the great strife between the few and the many, between privilege and equality, between law and power, between opinion and the sword.”

In the summer of 1865, Godkin continued, “the habit of political discussion” was “reviving but slowly.” There was much to figure out:

Topics for discussion in such a weekly journal as it was proposed to make the Nation, were abundant enough. Whether a sufficient audience could be found willing to hear them discussed from an independent standpoint, was a question about which there was much difference of opinion. But it is no harm to say, at this distance of time, that nobody connected with the press, who was consulted about it, thought such a project likely to succeed; and most of those who were generally considered qualified judges, were certain of its failure within a year.

Some of the original readers were still around, Godkin noted, while many of its current readers, as of his writing in 1885, “were children when the Nation was started.” Others—many others—over the years had cancelled their subscriptions, because “while sharing its opinions on most questions,” they had found “its opinions on some too unpalatable for continued reading, and have dropped it.” Godkin gripes:

There is nothing more curious in newspaper history than this readiness of subscribers to close their ears on all subjects, even to a journal which they have trusted for years, because on some one subject it happens to run counter to their convictions or prejudices. It is only to an editor that people say that failure to agree with them on a single question deprives what he says on any question of all value.

Then Godkin attempted to counter a criticism the magazine faces to this day:

It used to be a not uncommon criticism on the conduct of the Nation that the paper denounced evils without suggesting a remedy. In numerous cases, however, the utterers of this complaint have been challenged to produce from its files an example of this sort of denunciation, but have never responded. It is safe to say that its columns since 1865 may be searched in vain for the exposure of an abuse, unaccompanied by the suggestion of a cure, except of course in cases where the cure is obvious. When a journal denounces lying, for instance, there is no need to mention truth-telling as a specific.

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And finally he predicted that institutional memory would gradually wither as everyone acquainted with the magazine in its early days joined “the majority,” i.e., the deceased.

In twenty years more there will probably be but few, if any, left of those who took part in its formation or helped it on its way, but it is not too much to say that they will carry with them from this world the credit of having, through its columns, done something to hasten the coming of the better time, the reign of sweeter manners and purer laws.

In our next post, we’ll look at The Nation’s fiftieth anniversary issue, from 1915, which included a brief memoir by one writer who took part in its formation, at least in the sense that at a mere 22 years old he (and also his father) had had an essay in its first issue. In 1915, just a year before he joined “the majority” himself, Henry James looked back on the “fairies” that had attended The Nation’s birth.

***

Curious about how we covered something? E-mail me at rkreitner at thenation dot com. Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

 

Read Next: Richard Kreitner on Lyndon Johnson’s ‘We Shall Overcome’ Speech.

Hold It Right There: Teapot Dome Belongs to the People!

The Teapot Dome oil field in Wyoming

A postcard, circa 1922, picturing Wyoming's Teapot Rock (Wikimedia Commons, PD-US)

The news that ownership of the Teapot Dome oil field in Wyoming recently passed from public to private hands for the first time in American history has been greeted with a collective shrug. That response befits the nation Gore Vidal renamed, late in life, with painful aptness, the United States of Amnesia. Yet one might have hoped that the sale would at least have picked a little at the scar tissue covering what was once, before Watergate, one of the sorest wounds the legitimacy of the US government had ever received. Instead, Politico’s anxiously reassuring headline about the transfer, “Government sells Teapot Dome—on the level, this time,” sums up so much about our relationship, in 2015, with the American past.

Exactly a century ago, in 1915, President Woodrow Wilson withdrew the oil-rich lands around Teapot Rock in central Wyoming and assigned them to serve as reserves for the Navy. After World War I, the Navy transferred them to the Department of the Interior, headed in the administration of Warren Gamaliel Harding by one Albert Fall. In an ominous fit of Rahm-like privatization, Fall leased the lands to oil companies on the cheap, without soliciting competing bids.

So far, so good, at least according to the rules of the wheel-‘em-deal-‘em pre-1933 capitalism to which our own captains of industry are so desperate to return. But where Fall erred was in accepting bribes from the companies amounting to several millions of dollars, adjusted for inflation. It took a few years—and the Pulitzer Prize–winning efforts of unjustly forgotten investigative reporter Paul Y. Anderson, then of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, later the longtime Washington correspondent for The Nation—but eventually Fall was convicted of bribery and became the first (until Nixon’s Attorney-General John Mitchell, the only) former Cabinet-level official to go to prison.

In October 1927, when the Supreme Court declared the lease of Teapot Dome void, as it had been “procured by corruption,” The Nation ran an editorial, “Calling Men By Their Rightful Names,” applauding the Court for acknowledging the crooks for what they were: “faithless Americans who cheated and betrayed their country in order to line their pockets.”

“The deep significance of this goes far beyond the recovery of the oil lands,” the editorial continued. “This is the final triumph of the movement to purge the government” of corruption. “Not only do the mills of the gods continue to grind exceeding fine; the spirit of revolt cannot be downed.”

“The Multimillionaire Goes Free,” read The Nation’s editorial the following spring, when Harry F. Sinclair, one of the oil magnates who had bought off Fall, was acquitted.

From the Pacific to the Atlantic men and women…are declaring that it is settled that there are two kinds of justice—one for the rich, one for the poor. They are right, and their knowledge of this fact will do more harm to American institutions than all the soap-box orators who may be preaching a radical change in our form of government in the streets of our cities. Destroy faith in the equality of all men before the courts, and you go far toward toppling the government.

Back in government hands, the Teapot Dome field sat dormant until the 1970s, when oil production resumed and the Navy transferred title to the Department of Energy. Since 1976, drilling on the land has plugged more than $569 million into government coffers, and for awhile at least, the oil was being sold at suspiciously familiar below-market prices.

Then, late last month, the Energy Department announced that it had sold Teapot Dome for $45.2 million to Stranded Oil Resources, a company that specializes in shooting carbon dioxide to loosen up the last little bits of petroleum left in the ground.

“By targeting historic properties with known characteristics,” Stranded’s CEO said, “we reduce the uncertainty and risk generally associated with oil exploration.”

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The scandal isn’t what’s illegal, some guy once said; it’s what’s legal. A corollary for the twenty-first century: the real scandal is that what “faithless Americans” used to have to do illegally has been reframed as ho-hum and above-board.

It’s probably too late, but some earnest, reckless public-interest lawyer ought to try to sue to keep Teapot Dome in the public hands. The National Park Service could build a museum about the history of what we’re endlessly assured is only corruption of an otherwise healthy body politic. It could open in 2022, on the centennial of public disclosure of Fall’s deals. Maybe President Hillary Clinton would cut the ribbon.

(As it happens, the Nation editorial of October 1927 applauded the progressives’ determination, a year before the presidential election, “to do their uttermost to prevent the nomination of another Harding ready to put criminals in the Cabinet, or of another Coolidge ever ready servilely to lick the boots of Big Business.”)

The deep significance of this goes beyond the recovery of the oil lands. Where are those soap-box orators?

* * *

Curious about how we covered something? E-mail me at rkreitner at thenation dot com. Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

Read Next: Richard Kreitner on how U.S. torture programs have not yet evolved since the war in the Philippines.

We Used to Convict American Torturers, So Why Not Today?

Macabebe Scouts apply the "water cure," 1902

A 1902 cartoon depicts Macabebe Scouts applying the "water cure" during the Spanish-American War. (Deseret Evening News, CC BY 2.0)

Of the many worthy candidates for the year in which the United States of America conclusively fell from grace, I have always had a fondness for 1899. That was the year war-mad imperialists launched a crusade to take over Spain’s colony in the Philippines. “The development of the islands cannot be successfully done while the Filipinos are there,” argued the San Francisco Argonaut, quoted in The Nation in 1902. “Therefore the more of them killed the better.”

Echoes, of course, of Vietnam—but also, in a different way, of our current age of endless and boundless war. “Whenever a small force of Americans undertakes an expedition,” The Nation observed in 1900, “the woods and hills become alive with enemies.”

The Americans’ response was indiscriminate slaughter. In his 1939 memoir, Fighting Words, The Nation’s former editor and publisher Oswald Garrison Villard—a co-founder of the Anti-Imperialist League—wrote that on April 14, 1902, he “lunched” with President Theodore Roosevelt and told him about some of worst reports of American abuses in the Philippines. “The very next day he issued an order calling on the military for a most rigorous investigation,” Villard recalled. “Some of the phrases in that order had a remarkably familiar sound, as I had used them in my talk with him.”

But Roosevelt’s secretary of state, Elihu Root, responded with a report asserting that US troops’ behavior was “worthy only of praise, and reflecting credit on the American people.”

Still, as the historian Paul Kramer wrote in The New Yorker in 2008, “further revelations from the islands” forced a broader debate on the issue of torture: a Senate committee convened to investigate the issue, and American troops were repeatedly brought before courts-martial to answer for charges of torturing and wantonly killing Filipinos en masse.

Even those processes were undermined: the Senate committee was led by the jingoist Henry Cabot Lodge, who suppressed the records of the courts-martial, which generally handed down sentences of absurd leniency, given the crimes, when the accused were convicted at all.

In March of 1903 The Nation ran an editorial note on its first page calling for the release of records from the trials of soldiers for committing “barbarous practices.” It castigated the War Department for suppressing the information:

The course of the Department touching this particular branch of its business has been marked by concealment and duplicity. There is not a more shameful page in our history. Nothing so much needs turning inside out as the court-martial records, unless it be an exposure of the cases of barbarity that were never tried. Of the latter, nothing will be known positively until the last trump sounds.

The release of the Senate’s torture report in December was treated as the sounding of the last trumpet in our more recent dalliance with the water cure and other “barbarous practices” borrowed from the past. But so far from the comparatively elevated standards of 1903 are we today that the only American prosecuted in relation to the US torture program has been the whistleblower, John Kiriakou, who told us about it.

“Where Americans actively defend torture, or sanction it through their silence,” Paul Kramer wrote in January, “it is their willingness to assimilate the pain of others into their senses of safety, prosperity and power that stretches the darkest thread between past and present.”

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The damage of torture is contagious. In the same March 1903 issue, The Nation reported that Roosevelt was standing by his pledge to make appointments to federal offices without regard for race. Applauding Roosevelt’s stance in face of opposition even from his own party, The Nation mocked the president’s naïve assumption that the Party of Lincoln ought to be as committed to racial equality in 1903 as in the days of Emancipation and Reconstruction. The takeover of the Republican Party by warmongers, The Nation argued, bore unforeseen consequences. “Our treatment of an inferior race across the sea has encouraged certain men to believe that an inferior race may be oppressed in our own land,” the editors noted. “What the astonished President sees is only our injustice abroad returning to plague us at home.”

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Curious about how we covered something? E-mail me at rkreitner at thenation dot com. Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

 

Read Next: Richard Kreitner on John Keats’s legacy.

Today is FDR’s Birthday: Before the 1932 Election, ‘The Nation’ Was Not Impressed

Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1932

Franklin D. Roosevelt in Topeka, Kansas, September 1932

In the run-up to the 1932 presidential election, The Nation ran a series of profiles of the candidates called “Presidential Possibilities.” The ninth and final installment—oddly mislabeled the eighth—was of the sitting governor of New York, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, born on this date in 1882.

Henry Pringle, journalist and biographer of Theodore Roosevelt, wrote that FDR’s last name itself was “worth a vast number of votes.” Like the name Clinton today, perhaps? “We talk a good deal about democracy,” Pringle continued, “but we like Presidential candidates with a background, at least, of aristocracy.”

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Pringle’s conclusions about the prospects for liberal revival under a Roosevelt presidency are amusing to read. Of particular interest today is Pringle’s suggestion that “a new deal is needed in the world,” but that Roosevelt was not likely to introduce it:

The truth is that Franklin Roosevelt hauls down banners under which he has marched in the past and unfurls no new ones to the skies…His candidacy for the Democratic nomination has strength because he is all things to many sections of the nation. In the East he is wet and not radical. In the West he is progressive. In the South he is not very wet, after all, and is—thank God—a Protestant. These are priceless assets to a candidate for a nomination. They are, perhaps, exactly the reverse if Franklin Roosevelt is to be judged on the basis of his worth as a possible President of the United States. If it is true that a new deal is needed in the world, there is small hope for better things in his candidacy. If it is true that foreign debts must be adjusted downward and reparations forgotten, there is nothing in Roosevelt’s philosophy, as far as we know, which gives promise of a better day. He calls for palliatives in world affairs, not cures. His domestic program is hardly more stimulating. This may be the reason why, although Roosevelt wins respect for his ability, his candidacy arouses so little real enthusiasm. I see no evidence whatever that people are turning to him as a leader. They may vote for him—I think they will—because they are sick and tired of Hoover and weary of the depression.

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Curious about how we covered something? E-mail me at rkreitner at thenation dot com. Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

Read Next: Richard Kreitner and The Almanac on the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi.

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